Do We Need To Think About Redefining Citizenship?

Do We Need To Think About Redefining Citizenship?
Illustration: W.G. Collingwood (1854 - 1932)

The hottest year on record was 2016. It was also the year scientists advised that Earth’s citizens were now living in the Anthropocene, the name proposed for an epoch in which humans influence geology and environment on a global scale.

The concept of citizenship originally described inhabitants of (probably walled) towns. Some insistence on specificity of place certainly remains, although the concept today generally refers to nations rather than cities. But what are concerned citizens to do in the face of problems such as climate change, which cannot easily be contained by walls or borders, and to which we all contribute?

Alberto Seveso’s cover illustration for a 2015 edition of Nature dedicated to the Anthropocene highlights some of the key factors that turned humanity into a geophysical force, including nuclear technology, the evolution of agriculture, and the industrial revolution. The depiction of a large body containing smaller human figures bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the most iconic renderings of sovereignty and citizenship: Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece for Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Environmental citizens

Like Bosse, Seveso also asks the individual citizen to consider themselves as part of a wider collective – but this time, not just as part of a nation state, but of a planet-shaping (but not planet-controlling) Anthropos.

Imagining what citizenship might mean in such an era is tricky, not least as it means thinking across both borders and generations. But there are mechanisms for attempting to balance the rights and responsibilities of individuals, nation states and our cosmopolitan obligations to a shared biosphere.

Although 2016 ended with the election of a president who has proclaimed climate change to be a Chinese hoax, it began with a cautious optimism about the Paris agreement’s pronouncement of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

One of the most striking artworks of ARTCOP21, an exhibition which ran alongside the 2015 Paris climate conference, was Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Antarctic World Passport Delivery Bureau. Participants were issued with an Antarctic passport and “invited to sign a commitment charter for the protection of the environment and the future of the human race”.

The idea of holding dual-citizenship with the Antarctic isn’t shallow idealism. Even the most ardent brayers of Jerusalem should recognise that England is likely to be a lot less green and pleasant if, say, ice-melt from the cracking Larsen ice-cap helped disrupt the Gulf Stream.

This other Eden

And yet even a type of ecologically aware cosmopolitanism which might simply inform, let alone supersede, the attachments of national citizenship is anathema to the UK’s current government. Such notions of Britishness channel nationalist myths that echo John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Richard II.

Shakespeare’s play resonates curiously with Brexit Britain, and not just because in it a careless English ruler is usurped by a cynical new regime which later has to face down rebellion from Scotland and Wales. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, has a vision of England that is not only idyllic (“this other Eden, demi-paradise”) but in glorious isolation, cut off by the sea which serves as a “wall” or “moat” against “the envy of less happier lands”.

Fast-forward 400 years and the people of Lancaster, like the rest of Lancashire, voted to “take back control” of their borders in the July 2016 referendum. Six months earlier, Storm Desmond, potentially exacerbated by climate change, had left large swathes of the county flooded.

Six months after the referendum and in the face of civil disobedience, the government overruled Lancashire Council and forced through fracking in the county. In this political and physical climate, local sovereignty only goes so far.

It is striking that the Anglosphere is so fascinated with maintaining boundaries – Trump’s wall, Brexit borders, Australia’s disgrace at Nauru – but often fails to acknowledge the link between climate and migration. Or perhaps not, if you consider Anglophones are most likely to deny the reality of climate change.

But, as Naomi Klein points out, from water stress in the Middle East to major coastal cities under threat from flooding, “we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists”.

Citizens of the Anthropocene

Thinking about the Anthropocene shatters our sense of the world as a stable backdrop on which politics plays out. One way of viewing the renewed popularity of political strongmen – Trump, Putin, Xi, Modi, Erdoğan – is to see them as comfort blankets. Against geopolitical uncertainty, they offer coherent nationalist identity under a strong sovereign. But a retrenchment of nationalism is not well-suited to the international environmental challenges we face.

Dwelling on Seveso’s picture hints at alternatives. Here the giant Leviathan-esque body contains not only humans, but ecological processes, technologies and, with the Renaissance ships in the middle of the torso, history too.

Awareness of the legacy of colonialism and imperialism has informed one of the key criticisms of the word “Anthropocene”: that it is a homogenising term that treats humanity uniformly when neither risk nor responsibility is shared equally. Another key criticism of the Anthropocene concept is that the emphasis on human impact morphs into notions of human control – including fantasies of geoengineering our way out of our troubles.

So it is notable that Seveso’s figure, unlike Bosse’s, is empty-headed: it has half a face but no obvious brain. It is not towering above the city and the landscape, not a unified sovereign intelligence, not in control – just a body intertwined at every level with ecology, politics and technology.

One way of negotiating the multifarious challenges of citizenship in the Anthropocene is to relinquish the fixation on “taking back control” and recognise the radical challenges to our agency from forces not only beyond our borders but beyond our species.

In doing so, we can create informed citizens who recognise that they participate in citizenship on a changing planet that, whatever the science-warping mouthpieces of Murdoch and the Koch Brothers proclaim, will not be fooled into altering its course by alternative facts.

About The Author

Sam Solnick, William Noble Research Fellow in English, University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related Books

List Price: $125.00
Sale Price: $125.00 $76.27 You save: $48.73


List Price: $13.95
Price: $13.95


List Price: $11.95
Sale Price: $11.95 $10.61 You save: $1.34


List Price: $25.00
Sale Price: $25.00 $17.96 You save: $7.04


enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

LATEST VIDEOS

How Supercharged Plants Could Slow Climate Change
by TED
Plants are amazing machines -- for millions of years, they've taken carbon dioxide out of the air and stored it…
Are Hungry Swarms Of Tiny Krill Behind Ocean Mixing?
Are Hungry Swarms Of Tiny Krill Behind Ocean Mixing?
by National Science Foundation
Engineers are investigating the impact of krill swarms on ocean mixing, and possibly global climate.
Methane: The Arctic's Hidden Climate Threat : Natalia Shakhova's Latest Paper
by Just Have a Think
A methane burst from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf could happen at any time and needs only a trigger.
Understanding The Human Side Of Climate Change Relocation
Understanding The Human Side Of Climate Change Relocation
by Sarah M. Munoz
Climate change is expected to have a striking impact on vulnerable communities, especially in coastal regions where…
On Contact: Climate Crisis with James Hansen
by RT America
Dr. James Hansen, former director of NASA's Goddard Institute and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth…
Fran Ulmer: After the Arctic Ice Melts
by World Affairs
Sea ice in the Arctic is getting thinner and thinner each year. As the ice melts away, shipping lanes will expand and…
Experts Warn of Climate Tipping Point as Scientists Find Permafrost Thawing 70 Years Ahead of Schedule
Experts Warn of Climate Tipping Point as Scientists Find Permafrost Thawing 70 Years Ahead of Schedule
by Eoin Higgins
Areas of the Canadian Arctic permafrost are thawing rapidly, 70 years ahead of when scientists previously believed, as…
Ice on Fire: HBO Official Trailer And Interviews
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
Ice on Fire is an outstanding documentary presented by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is equally as important as An Inconvenient…

LATEST ARTICLES

Why The Indian Ocean Is Spawning Strong And Deadly Tropical Cyclones
Why The Indian Ocean Is Spawning Strong And Deadly Tropical Cyclones
by Jennifer Fitchett
The Indian Ocean has made its mark on the global news cycle this year. In March, tropical cyclone Idai made headlines…
Biodiversity Helps Coral Reefs Thrive – And Could Be Part Of Strategies To Save Them
Biodiversity Helps Coral Reefs Thrive – And Could Be Part Of Strategies To Save Them
by Cody Clements
Coral reefs are home to so many species that they often are called “the rainforests of the seas.”
Methane Emissions From Oil And Gas Basins 60 Percent Higher Than ...
Methane Emissions From Oil And Gas Exploration Are Under-Reported
by Greg McDermid and Maria Strack
Wetlands in Canada’s boreal forest contain deep deposits of carbon-rich soils, made up of decomposed vegetation (peat)…
Household tissue is a climate issue
Household Tissue Is A Climate Issue
by Kieran Cooke
Trees are the source of much of our household tissue. And trees and soil store huge quantities of carbon to add to…
How To Bring The Wisdom Of The Public To Bear On The Climate Emergency
How To Bring The Wisdom Of The Public To Bear On The Climate Emergency
by Graham Smith
A new form of politics is gaining steam as a solution to the climate crisis. Six parliamentary committees in the UK are…
Utopia Isn't Just Idealistic Fantasy – It Inspires People To Change The World
Utopia Isn't Just Idealistic Fantasy – It Inspires People To Change The World
by Heather Alberro
Climate breakdown, mass extinctions, and extreme inequality threaten the earth’s rich tapestry of life and leave our…
US Military Is A Bigger Polluter Than As Many As 140 Countries
US Military Is A Bigger Polluter Than As Many As 140 Countries
by Benjamin Neimark, et al
The US military’s carbon bootprint is enormous. Like corporate supply chains, it relies upon an extensive global…
Solar future shines ever more brightly
Solar Future Shines Ever More Brightly
by Paul Brown
Progress in China, the US and elsewhere shows an increasingly positive solar future as fuel from the sun grows cheaper…